Why ‘the soft stuff’ is the hardest, clearest thing you can have in a company

Culture and values expert Mia Hultman reveals some of her ‘golden keys’ for a better working culture.

Culture and values expert Mia Hultman reveals some of her ‘golden keys’ for a better working culture.

By Jesse Karjalainen

As part of our ‘Meet the Expert’ series we present and profile Mia Hultman, an expert in turning guiding values and vision into a strong organisational culture. Mia joined our team of experts at the beginning of 2022.

“Some people introduce me by saying, ‘okay, Mia is going to talk about the soft stuff’, but I see this as the most solid and clearest thing you can have in a company.”

Pioneer of culture-driven organisations

Based in Stockholm, Mia Hultman is an international values-culture expert and keynote speaker. She works with organisations and leaders to revitalise and reset their internal compasses for renewed focus and better working. Over the last 30 years she has worked with organisations such as Systembolaget, EA Sports, Adidas, SEB bank, Preem and Northvolt.

It was during a period of extended travels in the US when Mia first discovered the power of strong company cultures. It was there that she was introduced to Disney and learned how it uses company culture to stay on top.

This sparked in her a love for the inner workings of how people and organisations combine in everything they do. This passion for understanding organisational culture quickly grew into an occupation and today Mia is one of the best culture builders in the Nordics, earning her the nickname of “the Culture Rockstar”.

A uniting factor

In her role, Mia Hultman believes strongly in the power of having a strong vision because it becomes such a uniting factor. A clear vision and good leadership result in everyone heading in the same direction and sharing the same goals – as part of the same team.

“When organisations come to me, they have either lost direction, grown too quickly or they have – through merger or acquisition – struggled to join two different cultures together,” she reveals.

“They no longer know who they are, or where they are going. And instead of working together and helping each other, they are fighting,” she says.

Mia works with organisations to help them find their vision and forge a united way forward. She stays with them for every stage of the journey and takes on different roles along the way, including switching between being a process leader, keynote speaker and coach.

Keystones, leadership and values

Mia uses the analogy of a playing field to describe company culture. This playing field is what first creates the company vision and gives direction. After that comes intention, which answers the question, ‘why do we exist?’.

Once these two keystones are in place, the next question is, “Culture, how do we do that?” This, explains Mia, is where the leaders play a crucial role. They must own the process.

“Building a strong company culture is not anything I can do directly for an organisation – they need to put in the work themselves. But I am there to set the plan together for them and show them the way forward, as well as support and coach the leaders if they get stuck,” she explains.

“I can’t come in and tell people what their culture should be like. Instead, I hold up a virtual mirror and say, let’s talk about what you see and figure out how to improve this picture.”

The main focus of coaching leaders is to take them on a journey to discover who they really are as an organisation, and then point out how their vision and values impact their ability to build a strong and safe working culture.

There are, of course, some who all too frequently dismiss the notions of values and culture as “soft”, “nice to have” or “maybe one day”. As a values-culture expert, Mia always points to the strong, direct connections that creating good culture and change management have on all-round company results.

“You can also show that a strong organisational culture is what makes your employees, as well as your customers, stay with you. These two things are not ‘nice to haves’ – they are essential – especially given the global competition for talent right now,” she concludes.

Example of a great company culture

“When I think about a strong company culture and where you really can see it in everything the company does and in everything the employees do, I always return to Disney,” says Mia.

“They have a vision that says, ‘We create happiness’. This means that whatever you do in your role of working for Disney should be focused on creating happiness. Let me share a story that really shows what this means.”

“When I attended one of Disney’s management courses, it was held at one of their theme parks,” she reveals. “I was there, looking, listening and living the real Disney culture. It was a warm day in Orlando and the line to the ice-cream van was long.”

“There was this little boy who couldn’t take his eyes off the ice cream. And after a long wait, it was finally his turn. He chose which flavours and took the ice-cream cone in his hand as if it was a magical treasure, just for him.”

“The boy took a couple of steps. Being so happy, he waved at his parents and dropped his ice cream. He burst out crying, his eyes looking at his ice cream that now was on the pavement.”

“However, the ice-cream man saw what happened. He had several choices of how to act: serve those in line, look the other way or choose to help the boy. What should he do?”

“Well, because Disney’s vision is ‘We create happiness’ and its values are ‘courtesy and show’, the ice-cream man quickly scooped together a new ice cream, walked over and gave it to the boy,” she says.

“This way of thinking about customers will have transformed this boy’s experience immediately. It might have become an unforgettable moment for him.”

Mia is a strong believer in storytelling. It is these kinds of stories that she uses to illustrate company culture and get people engaged when working with her clients. They help explain and emphasise how values work and what they mean for a strong company culture.

“My belief is that stories are what make us react. By telling a story, something happens to the listener within – it can be feelings of happiness, excitement, sadness and even anger, if you don’t agree. This is where we can start a conversation and begin exploring values at both an individual and organisational level,” explains Mia.

These are what Mia calls the ‘golden keys’ that unlock the values, vision and culture that exist within an organisation – often without anyone realising it.

“Combining good leadership with vision and values is what creates an organisation’s working culture. By providing a big picture and clear direction, employees are inspired and better able to understand what the company is trying to achieve,” she concludes.

Mia Hultman will be releasing her exclusive new course ‘Creating value-driven organisations’ in the spring of 2022.

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